In A Rush?
Which of all the following scenarios do YOU best identify with:
Getting empathetic when you hear a baby crying
Lying to defend your loved ones. (Like in court… Wait what?)
Thinking, “Aww how can you say no to that face?” when you see your dog
Seeing a foster mom love her adopted child like her own
Not having any fear or anxiety when you’re with your loved ones – especially in bed
Regardless of your role as a devoted foster mom or dog lover, all of the above scenarios are impacted by the social negotiator in our brain: Oxytocin.
The coveted, internet-sensation, neuropeptide is believed to play a massive role in how we process social information – from a baby’s cry to a familiar face. And researchers at New York University (NYU) demonstrated the process in a severely baller way.
An overview of the article, recently published in Nature:
The researchers had several baby mice, or “pups”, mama mice and virgin mice (no parenting experience). When the pups strayed away from the nest, they freaked and let out an ultrasonic distress cry. What did the moms do? Exactly what you’d do if you heard your baby crying in the front yard – they found the pups and retrieved them.
And the mice with no parenting experience?
- The control group, given just saline, did nothing. Sorry pup, you can stay out in the cold.
- The virgins given oxytocin heard the Amber Alert and set out on a “mommy mission”.
- The virgins not given oxytocin, but housed with other moms, learned to rescue the babies after a couple days. But markedly slower than those given oxytocin.
Just imagine if a bunch of random mice were given oxytocin in ‘An American Tail’ – Fievel would’ve been adopted 17 times and not spent the entire movie crying.
Here’s the finding that has the science world celebrating like its 1999:
The researchers found that oxytocin activity lateralized to the left auditory cortex; it basically acted in the same side of the brain that specializes in expressive speech in humans. This represents an interesting potential link between the way we process speech, integrate the information, and make sense of the signal. In the process, oxytocin acts like a megaphone and a Brita-water filter for social cues to block out certain signals and enhance others.
The beauty, as articulated by Dr. Robert Froemke of NYU and senior investigator on the paper, is that oxytocin has the ability to inhibit certain signals while helping us recognizing the behavioral importance of cues. This could have massive implications in the treatment of conditions such anxiety, autism, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
So going back to the fun scenarios, mammals have an uncanny ability to take in sounds, smells, and visuals and immediately devise a strategy. Oxytocin research is sexier than Game of Thrones.
Here’s a few more reasons to nerd out over oxytocin:
Autism – It has been shown that children, as young as 6 months, who grow up to develop Autism, have trouble processing social cues such as faces and speech. Could the social cue decrypting power of oxytocin help? Possibly. In one study, 25 children and adolescents with autism were randomly given either intranasal oxytocin or a placebo. The ones who received oxytocin showed greater improvements in social skills. I meet plenty of autistic kids in my work and this excites me to the nth degree.
Starting a Revolution –Ever wonder why you have the ability to lie, cheat, steal, and fight to protect your loved ones? Even at your own expense? Oxytocin enhances parochial altruism – you will do anything to promote your own-group, including aggressing against other groups. For example, if some neighborhood bully messes with your kid and your gut tells you to go get arrested for assaulting a minor.
Would you mess with one of these guys? Loads of oxytocin – I wouldn’t if I were you.
Adoption – By the love and dedication, you often cannot tell the difference between an adopted and biological child. Here’s oxytocin-induced proof: A study found that foster moms’ oxytocin production is associated with all infants but, over time, hones in on her own – throwback to the great mouse experiment and the pups.
Puppy Eyes – Just like mother-baby eye contact, a dog’s eyes may actually increase oxytocin levels in their owners, which in turn leads to puppy-affection and an oxytocin rise in the dog. Sneaky little bastards hijacked our trick some 30,000 years ago when they were domesticated.
“I got you now…get me kibbles and bits!”
I could go on and on. Overall, as the highlighted article demonstrates, science is slowly decoding the way we process sound, speech, block out fear, anxiety, and work together as a social unit. This is a hallmark example of bench-to-bedside translation; when brilliant scientific discoveries, in a lab, can one day find a home helping millions.
In A Rush?